Clashes rock Tunisia

2012-12-02 10:18

Siliana - Fresh clashes erupted on Saturday in the flashpoint Tunisian town of Siliana, amid rising discontent over poor living conditions two years after the revolution, but a deal was struck aimed at satisfying protesters' demands.

In Siliana, where violence has left more than 300 people wounded this week, hundreds of youths, armed with rocks and petrol bombs, clashed throughout the afternoon with the police, an AFP journalist reported.

The protesters also erected barricades from branches and tyres, setting some of them on fire, in the fifth straight day of unrest in the impoverished town.

Residents are demanding the governor's resignation, financial aid and the withdrawal of police.

In nearby Bargou, protesters with similar grievances blocked a road and hurled rocks at police vehicles heading for Tunis, with the police again firing tear gas to disperse them.

Dispersing rioters

Calm returned to Siliana by the evening, with security forces patrolling the streets in armoured vehicles and on foot, after dispersing most of the protesters by firing warning shots and tear gas.

But some young protesters remained on the streets, determined to keep up their resistance to the security forces, who were more numerous and better organised than on Friday.

"They must leave!" shouted one hooded youth, holding a petrol bomb.

Precarious living conditions, widespread unemployment and police brutality were driving factors behind the revolution that toppled former strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January last year and touched off the Arab Spring.

President Moncef Marzouki warned on Friday that the crisis could spread, saying the government of Islamist and rival Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali was not meeting the expectations of the people.

"We do not have a single Siliana... I am afraid that it could spread to several regions and threaten the future of the revolution," Marzouki said in a televised speech. He said Tunisia was at a crossroads between "the road to ruin and the road to recovery."

As clashes rocked the area, the government and the main UGTT trade union that has organised the protests, reached a deal aimed at satisfying the demands of demonstrators - principally, the resignation of Governor Ahmed Ezzine Mahjoubi.

The deal envisages sidelining Mahjoubi, whom Jebali has refused to sack, but not removing him, with his deputy to take over.

"The deputy of the governorate is charged with managing the governorate while awaiting the appropriate decisions by the authorities," Mohamed Ben Salem, the minister of agriculture and government representative in the negotiations, told reporters in the capital.

He said steps would be taken to ensure the economic development of the region, another of the protesters main grievances.

UGTT deputy secretary general Belgacem Ayari described the accord as "a positive step, pending concrete decisions."

But he insisted on the need to withdraw police reinforcements from Siliana, whom he blamed for the violence that has rocked the town.

Government spokesperson Samir Dilou hailed the agreement.

"The deal meets all the demands of the residents of Siliana. We call for calm, because there is no excuse for the protests and the violence," he said.

The protesters have previously said they will continue their agitation until Mahjoubi steps down, police repression ends and a development programme for the region is put in place.

Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay both called on the authorities to end the use of "excessive force" against the protesters in Siliana.

The latest violence follows mounting clashes, strikes and attacks by hard-line Islamists known as Salafists across Tunisia that have plunged the country into a political impasse.

It also comes ahead of the second anniversary of the revolution, triggered on 17 December 2010 when a young fruit and vegetable seller set himself alight in the town of Sidi Bouzid to protest against police harassment.